Kantian Respect

One of the fundamentals of Kantian ethics is a universal respect for people — not just those of whom we are fond, or those of whom we approve, or those who belong to a group with which we identify. This of course does not mean we should one-sidedly tolerate extremes of abuse. Respect for people is actually an Aristotelian mean. Like all ethical considerations, it requires a bit of thought in the application.

I used to worry about “metaphysical” or theological preconceptions about what it means to be a person. Even now, I would not base respect for people on a theological notion of substantial personhood, which carries too many presuppositions. Rather, I would start from the Aristotelian concept of rational or talking animals, understood as participating in Brandomian sapience.

I actually believe in respect for all beings, period — including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. At this level, respect just means a sort of general kindness. But Kant was right to note that there is a profound practical difference when it comes to our fellow talking animals. The fact that we can talk to each other and ask questions of one another makes our interaction with fellow rational animals unique. Even under a broad, somewhat non-Kantian notion of respect for all beings, the kinds of interaction that are possible among beings possessed of language are far richer, and entail more specific responsibilities. Kant himself chose to reserve the term “respect” for those more specific responsibilities.

Kantian respect for people has nothing to do with judgments of the competence or goodness of individuals. It is grounded in the sheer possibility of dialogue. (See also Recognition.)

Stubborn Refusal

Under an ideal of mutual recognition, what are we supposed to do with those who stubbornly refuse to participate, say by persistently disrespecting certain categories of people, or persistently disrespecting us in particular? What is a kind person to do when confronted with, say, Nazis? How do we deal with questions like this at a societal level? There is no easy general answer. As a child confronted by schoolyard bullies, I always turned the other cheek. This allowed me the kind of pride I cared more about, but not one of the bullies saw the errors of their ways as a result.

At a societal level, I don’t advocate affording one-sided recognition to those who consistently refuse to recognize others. What’s difficult is defining objective criteria that would yield the right outcome in all cases. For example, in the case of actual Nazis, I am more concerned that people ought to defend themselves against them than to protect the civil liberties of Nazis. There is a slippery slope here though, raising the classic question of who is to guard the guardians. In the 1960s, U.S. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover claimed that the pacifistic civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous subversive. This was patently outrageous, but there are many other cases in between, and I don’t claim to know how to account for all of them. (See also Kantian Respect; Fragility of the Good; Evil?)


Magnanimity (literally “great-souledness”) has a special place among the Aristotelian virtues. It is said to be a mean that avoids both vanity and small-mindedness. In the later tradition under Christianity, pride often tended to be regarded simply as a sin, but Aristotle made a strong distinction between vanity or arrogance and a legitimate, well-founded kind of pride that leads to good actions.

Aristotle says a person who has this legitimate kind of pride will be very willing to help others, but will generally avoid asking for help. Such a person will be open and frank, caring more about the truth than about negative judgments of others. They will generally not hide what they feel. They will have the confidence to assert themselves with others who have power and authority, but will treat others — especially those less fortunate — with kindness and respect, and perhaps ironic self-depreciation. Also, “it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them”.